In 1993, three teenagers in West Memphis, Arkansas were tried and convicted of the brutal murder of three young boys. One of the trio, Damien Echols, was sentenced to death, while the others, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., were given life sentences. The trial was arguably amongst the most controversial and contested in recent American legal history. They have been the subject of no less than three HBO documentaries, and gave birth to a public campaign whose explicit goal was to try and correct what was seen as an egregious miscarriage of justice.
Which inevitably gives rise to the question: why did director Amy Berg, with assistance from producers Peter Jackson and Damien Echols, feel the need to return to this well worn territory? Thankfully, West of Memphis allays these concerns relatively early on, starting with a concise overview of the initial crimes, trial, and aftermath, before moving on the new developments that were taking place as work began on the project. The original crime is not the film’s only focus, since it also devotes itself to documenting the movement which grew over the years to free the West Memphis Three. This included high profile celebrity supporters as diverse as Eddie Vedder, Henry Rollins, and Jackson himself, whose interview segments effectively cast him as the film’s narrator.
Berg’s direction is also effective in laying out the whole array of complex legal and policing failures that led to the trio being convicted on the flimsiest of pretenses, as well as putting forward a forensic hypothesis in an attempt work out what exactly happened on that fateful day. West of Memphis certainly takes an unambiguously political stance on its subject matter, making a convincing case that these types of institutional oversights are attributable to the murky overlap that exists between government and law enforcement within the United States.
A viewing of West of Memphis is likely to induce tears and/or rage at various intervals given the difficult and emotive nature of its material. It’s a crucial documentary that brings a long running saga up to date, and though it does provide some closure by film’s end, it also makes clear that the wider ramifications of the case are a long way from being truly resolved.
West of Memphis is in Australian Cinemas from 14 February through Sony Pictures.